The Cover

A substantial part of the horrifying reality of the Boston bombings is rooted in the fact that a charismatic and seemingly totally likable kid was partially responsible for making it happen. In fact, if there has been one difficult-to-reconcile reality that America has been confronted with in the post-9/11 age, it is that the people who make it their mission to take violent action against our fellow citizens are themselves actual people and not an easy-to-assess, two dimensional face of evil. The controversial cover which—surprise—accompanies an actual piece of journalism in the form of a profile of the accused killer, confronts this reality.

The anger of those yelling about this is understandable, though the expressions are worrying and sloppy. When I posted to Facebook a quote from a friend of mine who wrote, “Nothing like LITERALLY judging a book by its cover,” someone responded, “Yup, and proud of it as long as it is in reference to Rolling Stone Magazine.” The response is troubling for a number of reasons, particularly considering it suggests that there are exceptions to this pretty elementary rule of keeping an engaged and open mind, but also because it reminds me of 2002/2003 when I would hear members of my family say things like, “We have as a country have to get behind this series of nonsensical things because of 9/11.”

“Uh, this symbol of terror has made you so confounded with anger that you are not exercising any logic.”

“But 9/11.”

“Sure, but now they’re talking about introducing this legislation that authorizes a slew of domestic spying programs. Isn’t that crazy?”

“But 9/11.”

“Now we’re committing thousands of lives and billions of dollars to this thing and it turns out it didn’t really have anything to do with 9/11 in the first place.”

“But 9/11.”

I understand that people are angry, particularly when it comes to being faced with our present reality, in which—particularly for people over 30—the symbols of the reality we were raised with appears to have been uprooted over the past decade and a half. We can’t, though, throw logic out the window in favor of getting angry simply because other people are willing to ragefully cheer along.

With regard to the cover, while you might not agree with actions of the person pictured, it is difficult to argue with the fact that the alleged killer didn’t look like a scary monster and this is one of the more compelling and important parts of the story. Yes, Rolling Stone could have dedicated its cover to those devastated by the bombing, but pretty much every news outlet has done a fabulous job of doing exactly that for the past three months. In fact, I would argue that the overall coverage of the Tsarnaev brothers has been handled substantially better than the glorifying spotlights that have accompanied atrocities past. In general, the media has done a pretty good job when it comes to putting the victims first and the accused murderers in a distant second. Rolling Stone is stepping up to tell another story.

Perhaps you don’t see Rolling Stone for the [sometimes-inconsistent] medium for cutting and influential journalism that it is. It is worth remembering, or considering for the first time, that for decades, from Hunter Thompson to PJ O’Rourke to Matt Taibbi, the magazine has been home to paradigm-shifting voices in the profession.

“But putting him on the cover in a pose that makes him look like Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan is irresponsible.” Is it? Or is doing so an acknowledgement that mass violence is not exclusively a domain for flat, faceless monsters.

That terrorists started as humans and as uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, continue to be human after performing the acts that harm and polarize us.

That these acts we wish we could will to make sense originate in actual people.

There is something we are angry, frustrated, confused about indeed, but isn’t a photograph. It is the unpredictable rules of our present reality, the uprooting of an unrealistic and luxurious predictability we once strained to believe would last forever, that is driving us to madness. The cover reminds us of this, but it is not responsible for it.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.